Years ago, I lived in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, just down the road a piece from the hamlet of Pereaux, and not much further from the villages of Habitant and Canard. These community names, of course, are French, though this is not at all a French-speaking area. Beyond these settlements lay a large lowland that we called “The Flats,” first created by people now long gone, who built dykes to keep the sea water out. And past those fields stretched the district of Grand Pré, a purely historical site because those who used to live there all disappeared. Some say it was murder en masse.
It was not not like other mass killings, as “only” one-third of the thousands of the French settlers lost their lives prematurely, though all of them were forcibly moved away, “merely” transported in the naval equivalent of cattle cars. Many of these people perished for lack of food and fresh air, or from contagious illnesses in the dark holds of the ships, while many others drowned in mishaps on the stormy seas. The families of these unfortunates were often split up so that the children sometimes came to exist like slaves as they were put to work by foreign masters. Terrible stuff.
This almost unbelievable tragedy took place all around where I lived and it was made more real to me through a book entitled The Acadians – a people’s story of exile and triumph, written by Dean Jobb. As always in such matters, the culprits behind the deportation of the Acadians (history books don’t call it a massacre) were very few in number but many soldiers and allies did the dirty work. Five years after the upheaval, the Nova Scotia authorities invited British-American farmers, who had no hand in the deportation, to come and settle the silent, emptied lands.
What about the ghosts? Well, apart from a few monuments and French place names, there are only spooky, whispy traces of these original Acadians. Their houses were burned down, their cattle stolen, their stories were forgotten, and the memory of their settlements was deliberately erased. I have “seen” an Acadian cemetery, kind of creepy, not because of weathered headstones viewed in dim evening light, but because even in broad daylight there was nothing obviously there but grass and weeds — all signs of the dead having been removed by man and nature.
Lots of Acadians are now living elsewhere in the Maritime provinces, descendants of those who came back years later, and there are many American “Cajuns,” as they are called down in the state of Louisiana where some of them ended up. But no one was allowed to return to the original fertile farms and familiar sites of former villages.
There is still an unreality about it. The area of my present home has, like the Valley where I once lived, dyked lowlands formerly owned by Acadians. The name of my town is Bible Hill, in part because British settlers who came after the deportation found an old French Bible near a well that the former inhabitants had used. This was just one more fleeting indication that Acadians actually lived, worked, worshipped, and raised families here. They seem like whispers, barely heard sounds in the wind, ghost-like hints of a once thriving people.
Some have said that Acadians of old were terrorists who deserved to be punished and deported. Sure, a few actively resisted British rule over the colony, but most of them apparently just wanted to be left alone to tend their farms. It has also been said that since they were all Roman Catholics, they could never be loyal to the nominally- Protestant British government. Maybe, maybe not. It should be added that the British were the newcomers, not starting to settle in Nova Scotia until at least a century after the Acadians had begun to live there.
Time has moved on and relations have now vastly improved. Queen Elizabeth made a royal proclamation to acknowledge the unjust suffering and she made July 28, which was the date of the deportation order, an annual day of commemoration. This summer, Acadians will invite their English-speaking neighbors, especially in this year of Canada’s 150th anniversary as a nation, to the historical site at Grand Pré, for remembrance and celebrations.
Yes, a happy ending, but wouldn’t it be good if in our day we would never hear again about the fear of other ethnic groups, about present religious bitterness, and even the threat of mass deportations? Here in the Maritimes, much of the bitterness of the past has been overcome, thank God — but please, no more true ghost stories.